Robert Grenier joined the CIA in 1979, just as the Shah of Iran fled to America. It was a low point for the agency, but Mr Grenier, imbued with the ethos of the fine East Coast schools he had attended, particularly Dartmouth College from which he had only recently graduated, was eager to serve.
In this engrossing, well-written insider’s account of his time as the CIA station chief in Pakistan and later as a senior bureaucrat at its Langley headquarters, he was drawn, he says, to a career that offered the possibility of high achievement and, because of the risk, some abject failure. He was more an old-school gentleman spy than a new-era secret warrior.
Most of the book is about Mr Grenier’s efforts from inside the American embassy in Islamabad to get Hamid Karzai into the driver’s seat in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on America on September 11th 2001. Mr Grenier writes of the attempts to supply air-support and weapons to the inexperienced Mr Karzai, who had entered Afghanistan from Pakistan in the autumn of 2001 with a motley group of supporters and a satellite phone he barely knew how to use.
The descriptions of this initial phase of the Afghanistan war are both amusing and hair-raising. The late-night videoconferences with the disagreeable Pentagon chiefs who worked to undermine the agency’s pro-Karzai strategies illustrate the internecine warfare within the Bush administration (the American military favoured the Northern Alliance). And the mercurial nature of the Pakistani spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, leads one to question again why America relied on this dubious partner. But 14 years later, all this is familiar territory.
A notable exception, given Mr Grenier’s antipathy towards the Pentagon, is his assertion that even with a vigorous deployment of American troops to Tora Bora in late 2001, Osama bin Laden would not have been captured.
George Tenet, the then CIA director, brought Mr Grenier back to headquarters as head of the Iraq Issues Group, the cell that organised the agency’s covert operations for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. From there, he became head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Centre (CTC). The director left the agency soon afterwards and Mr Grenier was fired after 14 months–for not being aggressive enough, he says.
The most disappointing part of the book is what it leaves out. Mr Grenier hints, but does not explicitly say, that the agency’s censors forbade him from discussing the use of drones. Even after a decent passage of time, he has little to say about what went on at the notorious black sites, the prisons where terror detainees were subjected to “enhanced interrogation”, including waterboarding.
He says that particular practice had ended by the time he ran the CTC. Without giving details, he offers a full-throttled defence of what happened at prisons in such countries as Poland and Thailand. “When I headed CTC, I did not consider what we were doing to be torture; nor do I think so now,” he writes. “As I reflect, putting myself where I was then, knowing what I did about our past success, having the concerns about imminent attack that we all did, and with the legal assurances we had, I still come out in the same place I did then.”
Last December, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that the agency had used torture in its detention programme, and had gained little usable information from it. President Obama concurred. Now in the consulting business, Mr Grenier, a defender of his institution to the end, is perhaps more of a new-breed warrior spy after all.
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